How the Guardian Angels Saved Boston

When a publicity-hungry peacekeeper from New York came to town, our imperial mayor, flailing police department, feuding ministers, and terrified citizens were finally inspired to work together to stop the killing. All it took was engineering one of the most embarrassing media spectacles in memory.

The brightly lit function room adjoining the chapel at Global Ministries Church in Dorchester was jammed the night of March 29. Concerned residents spilled out into the hall. Reporters jockeyed for position amid a battery of lights and TV cameras. Groups of teenagers skulked in and out while their parents waited for the show to begin.

At stage right, a dozen or so Guardian Angels stood in their matching satin jackets and berets. The band of civilian peacekeepers, some local but most on loan from DC, had come to town to resurrect the Boston chapter after more than a decade of inactivity. Amid a rise in shootings that led to 75 killings last year—the most in a decade—the preceding weeks had brought stream of shocking crimes: a one-year-old girl, shot in the leg in Roxbury; a teenager, stabbed repeatedly on the T platform at Back Bay Station; a five-year-old boy, shot in the ribs while riding in the back of his mother’s car on the Zakim Bridge; 22-year-old Chiara Levin, killed after getting caught in crossfire outside a convicted drug dealer’s house; 18-year-old college student Quintessa Blackwell, murdered in front of a Dorchester elementary school in broad daylight. In some parts of the city, you couldn’t walk more than a couple of blocks without seeing a kid wearing buttons memorializing his dead friends. The police department, hoping to project a sense of control, took the suggestion of an officer who’d recently returned from combat duty in Iraq, and decided to patrol the city with helicopters.

With the Herald having taken to referring to Boston as “DANGER CITY,” community leaders were demanding solutions. And to Curtis Sliwa, the Guardian Angels leader, that looked like an opportunity. The brash New Yorker had spent decades manning civilian patrols in tough neighborhoods all over the country, expertly extracting every last drop of publicity along the way. Hours after arriving quietly at Logan, Sliwa, a.k.a. “Angel One,” now stood at Global Ministries, chest out, practically sunning himself in the attention. He began to outline, in his lead-thick Bronx drawl, his plan to rescue the good people of Boston. He told the crowd about his early life as a night manager at a McDonald’s in 1979, when “New York City was slipping into the abyss.” When the Angels were just starting out, he said, he was “perceived as a hemorrhoid in a red beret. They couldn’t find enough Preparation H to schmear all over my body to cause me to dry up and wilt away.” He talked about getting “wooden shampoos” and “concrete facials” from New York City cops who hated his guts; about being “shot up five times with hollow-point bullets on the orders of John Gotti in the back of a yellow cab by his goons, his knuckle-draggers, his Neanderthals,” and waking up in the hospital to see his old antagonist, Mayor Ed Koch, and thinking he was “going straight to hell without an asbestos suit.” And so on. In the coming weeks, he’d recycle this spiel verbatim all over Boston, his magnetism diminishing with every retelling. But this debut performance was having the desired impact.

To Sliwa’s left, taking it all in, was the Reverend Bruce Wall, the tireless, media-savvy pastor and radio host who’d spent nearly 20 years working with at-risk youth in Codman Square. Over the past week or so, he’d managed to score a few headlines by cranking up the volume of his antiviolence message, but with the Angels coming to town, he’d glimpsed a chance for something even better—a strategic weapon in his ongoing cold war with the mayor. So he’d offered his church to Sliwa as a sort of home base. Judging by all the press hovering around him, the partnership was working great so far.

Suddenly, a reformed gangbanger by the name of Jimmy Thompson jumped to his feet and cut off Sliwa’s monologue midsentence. “Excuse me, man,” he said. “But we know what it is to be the Guardian Angels. We need answers, man. Guardian Angels are just a piece of the solution. My son asked me, ‘Why are they here, who are they?’ They’re here because it’s an indictment on blacks that ain’t standing up in this community to do what they’re supposed to do. That’s why they’re here.” He wrapped up with a demand that Sliwa ditch the jokes and “come into our community a little bit more humble,” winning a round of applause.

Sliwa, well accustomed to this sort of spectacle, merely looked bored as Thompson let loose. Wall, though, was rattled by the interruption. His Angels had just taken a good strafing, in his church, in front of his media. Trying to recapture the moment, he turned the floor over to longtime City Councilor Charles Yancey, the only elected official on hand from City Hall. Yancey stepped forward, his pate gleaming under the lights, the skinny part of his red tie hanging a few inches below the wide part. “I have to tell you,” he said, “that I am very angry tonight. I’m in pain tonight, because yesterday should have been Quintilla Blackwell’s 19th birthday.”

“Quintessa,” Thompson corrected.

“Quintessa. Thank you,” said Yancey. The councilman went on to rattle off proposals to deal with the violence, rhapsodize on the wealth of the Codman Square area, and wag a finger at the reporters for not covering a book drive he’d recently organized. As Wall’s friend began to wander, the minister grew restive. His eyes started darting around the room. Finally, he stepped in and asked the community outright if they would endorse the Angels. They did, roundly. Wall, feeling good, then turned to Yancey and asked him to affirm his own commitment to take the fight back to City Hall, naming him “mayor of this church.” Yancey smiled hard.

When the meeting adjourned, a phalanx of reporters rushed at Jimmy Thompson. The 43-year-old father of seven was clad in gray dress pants, a leather blazer, and two T-shirts, a black one on top and a white one underneath. He looked a little like a reverend himself. Facing the cameras, he took off his glasses, donned a Celtics hat, and introduced himself as a member of Greater Love Tabernacle. He seemed a bit bewildered at first, but as he started talking, he got comfortable fast.

It was a chaotic scene, everyone going off in a dozen directions at once. Over the coming days, the chaos would spread until it seemed as though the giant Big Apple Circus tent standing in front of City Hall had somehow been stretched across the entire city. Out of this absurd scrum, however—with the Guardian Angels, of all people, standing firmly at the center—would spring a most unlikely thing.

Wall had been agitating for the city to declare a state of emergency since 2005, when he staged an “occupation” of a block in Dorchester that had been dubbed “Hell Zone” on account of all the hookers and gangbangers that flooded in after dark. The occupation, which consisted of a good deal of walking, praying, and trying to convince the myriad drug dealers, delinquents, and prostitutes to decamp, was well staged. The stunt infuriated Menino—a man with a famously low threshold for criticism—and resulted in Wall’s getting frozen out by the mayor’s office.

After Chiara Levin was killed on March 24, Wall decided that if Menino wasn’t going to declare a state of emergency, he’d just declare one of his own. In characteristically understated fashion, the reverend sent out a message on March 26 via e-mail, fax, and flier, warning tourists, in 36-point font, that to come to Boston was to practically ensure a grisly end. “The city has lost the abilit y to stop the murders in Boston,” the missive howled. “We urge all visitors to our city to think twice about vacationing in Boston.” The next day’s Herald featured a big photo of Wall sternly holding up his warning in front of an “ENTERING BOSTON” sign. Next to it ran a column defending Wall’s decision.

After that, Menino finally spoke with Wall by phone. It didn’t go well. You can take shots at the mayor’s performance, or his priorities, but you don’t mess with his tourism dollars. “He’s so angry with me, so incensed with me,” Wall said, “that I don’t think he wants to breathe the same air.”

So Wall found someone who did. As it happened, the story directly above his photo in that morning’s Herald detailed Sliwa’s just-announced plans to come to Boston. Wall was skeptical of Sliwa at first—he didn’t think it was wise for these guys to barge into the neighborhoods uninvited—but he reached out to him anyway. The press would be all over the Angels, and if Wall could latch on, they’d be all over him, too.

From that point on, no one loved the Angels quite like Bruce Wall. Many Bostonians seemed glad they were here, because, hey, they couldn’t make things any worse, but Wall positively luxuriated in their presence. In addition to the use of his church, he gave them a Global Ministries e-mail address. He urged his congregation to help feed and support them. And if Menino dubbed them vigilantes and Police Commissioner Ed Davis accused them of exploiting tragedy, well, all the better. Where there is conflict, there shall be press.

At Sliwa’s welcoming party, Wall got to stand in front of the TV cameras right beside him, like they were the only two men in town willing to take action. It was a hell of an image, these two mavericks bucking an intransigent City Hall, and it made for great copy. Sliwa turned up in the Globe, snapping that if the city only “hired more cops and did what [they] are supposed to, we’d pack our bags and leave.” Columnists at both dailies hammered the mayor for being out of touch and not doing enough to stop the violence. The Herald upped the ante by hilariously handing the Angels their own blog, and Angel One wasted no time flogging the mayor. “Mayor Menino should ask his buddy Mayor Bloomberg in New York City why he supports us,” Sliwa wrote. “Yet Mayor Menino won’t. Instead, he calls us vigilantes. That’s libel!” Sliwa took to calling Wall his “peacetime consigliere.” Wall just beamed. He knew he had something good on his hands, and he wanted to protect it. “I’m tired of walking the streets by myself,” he told the Globe. “I’m so thankful God sent me some angels.”

Menino spent the next three days after Wall’s news conference getting absolutely pummeled by the press. That Sunday—Palm Sunday—he visited two churches run by pastors less likely to engineer media spectacles designed to embarrass him: Dorchester’s Greater Love Tabernacle and Mattapan’s Morning Star Baptist. At the same time, the Angels were starting their street patrols in earnest, standing at the corner of Washington and Columbia passing out fliers that read “Break the Code of Silence and tell us what you know. The question: Who’s shooting the children and teens in Boston?” The fliers included an e-mail address and phone number for Wall’s church.

From Menino’s perspective, it was bad enough that an anachronism from 1970s New York had come to Boston, teamed up with a noted malcontent pastor, and within 15 seconds had everybody in the city crawling up the mayor’s ass for not doing his job. Now this clown was telling him how to run his police department? Just the day before, Sliwa had written in his Herald blog that “it’s incumbent upon the mayor and police commissioner to send in a shock force and stop these guys. Five-O needs to start frisking the gangbangers and see how quickly it stops the violence.” For a strong mayor in a strong-mayor town, a man who pretty much controlled all the levers of power, this was unacceptable. So Menino mounted the podium before a capacity crowd at Greater Love, determined to set the record straight on this whole murder business. “A lot of people want to believe it’s out of control,” he said. “It’s not.” And if it appeared that way, it was the fault of those naysaying journalists.

“The city works. The problem is you’re always seeing headlines about the bad news,” Menino told the congregation. “I wish we had a good-news newspaper. The Good News of Boston. The bad guys don’t control this city, they only control the headlines.”

The mayor had been outmaneuvered: He couldn’t embrace the Guardian Angels because they were so inextricably tied to his nemesis Bruce Wall, and even if they weren’t, doing so would have meant admitting that his city did, in fact, need outside help. But his nothing-to-see-here approach was doing far more harm than good. The fact is, when you’re the mayor, murder is always out of control. To say it isn’t is to say you can control it, which raises the awkward question: “Then why aren’t you?”

Worse, Menino’s speech came just as news was arriving that 18-year-old Dwayne Graham, shot in the head on a crowded bus two days earlier, had been taken off life support. The next day, the mayor took another drubbing in the papers (“Oh yeah, Tommy,” screamed a Herald headline, “tell it to the victims”). “That so backfired on him,” Wall said. “How many kids have to die for the mayor to say, ‘You know, I think we have a problem we need to address.’ Is it 300? Maybe 400 black kids dying?”

While the mayor was struggling with his political problem, a kid named George, a high school freshman who’d been friends with the late Dwayne Graham, was dealing with what by then had become a fairly common emotion. “We wanted to find out who did it,” George said. “We wanted to do something about it also, but if we do something, that’s gonna come back to us and mess us up. I’m not going to get all emotional, because it happens every day. We’re kind of used to it now. We don’t want to be used to it. But that’s the way it is.”

The day after the mayor’s disastrous speech, Wall and the Angels continued their roll. The chief of the transit police, Joseph Carter, came out in support of the Angels. This may have been because crime was on the rise on the T, or it may have had something to do with the fact that Menino had publicly clobbered Carter recently for not doing enough to stop it. “It is a surprise that the city has not been welcoming to these guys,” Carter impishly told the Herald. “I can see why the community would be troubled by the city’s response.”

Armed with Carter’s blessing, Sliwa hit his Herald blog: “Maybe Gov. Deval Patrick, coming with a fresh approach and since he’s not running for president, will ask the mayor tonight to work with the Guardian Angels,” he wrote, referencing a scheduled meeting between Patrick and Menino. “Why turn your back on the Guardian Angels?”

For his part, Wall seemed giddy about the dividends his partnership with the Angels was paying. He was beginning to see an even bigger role for himself emerging. He told a reporter that he was thinking about running for the city council seat held by Rob Consalvo, a key Menino ally for whom anticrime initiatives are a signature issue. “The mayor would throw everything he had at me, including the kitchen sink,” Wall speculated to a Globe reporter. “I would be running against the mayor. Consalvo would be lost in the whole thing, quite frankly.”

While Wall was aligning himself with Sliwa and his Angels, the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, pastor of Cambridge’s Union Baptist Church and a founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, was watching warily. Whatever crime-prevention value the Angels might offer, embracing them seemed to Brown to be letting city leaders off the hook. “It’s almost as though people are saying, ‘All right, let’s give them a shot,’” Brown said. “But it’s our responsibility to deal with what’s happening in our community.” The city’s ministers had been trying for some time to come together to figure out a way of collectively dealing with the mounting violence—as they’d done back in the ’90s—but it wasn’t until the Angels appeared on the scene that Brown decided to “step up and demonstrate some leadership.” So he got in touch with the mayor, Police Commissioner Davis, and a handful of other ministers from TenPoint and the Black Ministerial Alliance. The mayor, Brown said, was eager to do something, so they set up a meeting at City Hall for April 2. Beyond the practical benefits of getting the clergy and the city back on the same page, Menino recognized that working in concert with the ministers was his best chance to pull the spotlight off of Wall and the Angels, and to get out the message: He was on the job.

After the hourlong meeting with Brown and the reverends, Menino and Commissioner Davis emerged to take questions from reporters. They announced that they would be sending a “massive” influx of police into the city’s hot spots, and that they’d be looking to work more closely with federal authorities to ratchet up the punishments for gang and gun crimes. “They will not get away with this,” the hulking Davis told reporters in his unwaveringly calm, Lowell-accented baritone. “I pledge to you that the people who have picked up firearms will go to jail.” Residents could be forgiven any skepticism. Councilor Yancey had been agitating for years for a permanently increased police presence in those neighborhoods, and Menino had, in the past, pledged repeatedly to coordinate with the feds. Little had ever come of it.

The next day at City Hall, Menino met privately with Governor Patrick to discuss how the state could send some help Boston’s way. The new governor, struggling to overcome a series of self-inflicted wounds that had damaged his image during his first few weeks in office, was enthusiastic. “I love this city; I love this mayor,” Patrick said afterward, vowing to put together an aid package.

Meanwhile, at the Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan, Reverend Brown went before the Black Ministerial Alliance to present the strategy he and Menino had come up with. For the most part, it was just a broad expansion of what members were already doing individually—gang interventions and community walks—but it did include one key addition: Ministers would go door to door and personally introduce beat cops to residents who, over the years, had grown deeply distrustful of the BPD.

The whole thing, in fact, was starting to look a lot like the legendary Boston Strategy to Prevent Youth Violence, the community-police partnership usually credited with dramatically reducing violent crime in the city during the mid- to late ’90s. Better known as simply the “Boston Miracle,” the partnership made the city a national model for crime prevention—at least until complacency set in, funding dried up, and we stopped using it. There’s plenty of debate about just how much the city’s policing strategy back then had to do with actually reducing crime, since by the end of the 1990s violent crime was plummeting all across the country. What’s beyond dispute, however, is that the Boston Miracle remains a powerful symbol of a time when the city pulled together to address a serious threat. And now Brown, the mayor, and the police commissioner all agreed it was time to get the band back together. Their plan was endorsed by 47 members of the local clergy. There was one notable exception.

“Reverend Wall,” Brown said, “has his own program.”

Two days later, Mayor Menino stood next to Governor Patrick in the gymnasium at Holland Elementary School, the same school in front of which Quintessa Blackwell had been shot to death, and where more recently an 11-year-old student had been arrested for bringing a loaded gun to class. A sea of parents, children, reporters, cops, politicians, and residents was spread out before them. The assembly had been called to allow the community to ask the two leaders what they planned to do about the killing.

The Q&A wrapped up, and Patrick and Menino, flanked by Attorney General Martha Coakley and Commissioner Davis, adjourned to a nearby hallway to announce to the press that Patrick had decided to help Boston stanch the bleeding by offering $900,000 in state funds to hire more cops and add summer jobs. The governor would also launch an antiviolence initiative that included strengthening the state’s already tough gun laws. Menino, too, had come prepared with a solution to offer the reporters: He would accept officers from other cities and towns who wanted to join the BPD. When someone asked the mayor whether Boston’s famously colicky police union would go along with the switch, Menino smiled. “We’re a new day,” he said.

It was, in fact, a new day: Menino was now back in control of the story. Driving that point home, he finally allowed his police chief to meet with Sliwa. Davis hadn’t changed his opinion that the Angels’ leader was merely milking the city’s tragedy for publicity, but he gritted his teeth and sat down with him in his conference room at the police department headquarters nonetheless. “Curtis came in here and started talking about how he wanted to make citizen’s arrests,” Davis said. “I cautioned him on that. I don’t think it’s healthy for him or the community.” Sliwa wasn’t quite as circumspect. He emerged from the meeting and posted an ecstatic item on the Angels blog about how the police department “didn’t say no” to giving the group police radios. Davis insisted there was no basis for this. “That’s the kind of caution I have about the rhetoric that surrounds this guy,” Davis said, “the grandstanding.”

Grandstanding or not, Sliwa had gotten his wish: He had met with a representative of the city’s power structure. What he hadn’t counted on, however—and what the mayor surely had foreseen—was that the sit-down rendered Sliwa an afterthought almost immediately. It had been only Menino’s refusal to talk to the Angels that had kept the story alive, that allowed the press to shriek that the mayor was turning his back on help—any help—in the middle of a city emergency. A single handshake had, as far as the rest of Boston was concerned, transformed the Guardian Angels into a glorified neighborhood watch group.

A week after furiously denying that the city was experiencing a crisis, Menino shifted seamlessly into crisis mode. After years of criticism for refusing to spend enough to adequately staff the police department, he suddenly proposed a budget with the largest increase in funding in five years—much of it going to antiviolence initiatives like more cops, summer jobs, and community centers. In case anyone still doubted just how deeply he abhorred the violence, Menino even took a few shots at former Governor Mitt Romney for pretending on the presidential campaign trail to be a steady hand with a semiautomatic weapon; he also demanded the removal of posters for the movie Fracture—which read “I Shot My Wife”—from bus shelters. Menino traveled to a New Jersey meeting of Mayors Against Illegal Guns to announce a series of television ads opposing NRA-driven federal gun policy. And when Jimmy Thompson—the former gang member who’d unexpectedly found himself at the center of a media pack after interrupting Sliwa on his first night in town—announced the founding of the 100 Strong Black Men of Boston, a group that would combat violence by meeting each month to “apologize to the women and mothers and children of the community for not taking our rightful place,” the mayor, Thompson says, promptly endorsed it. In a final stroke, Menino declared that May would be “Peace Month” in Boston, a flourish undercut somewhat when Peace Month kicked off with a pregnant woman getting shot in the leg.

After his meeting with the police commissioner, Sliwa all but disappeared. He stopped posting on the Herald blog and began laying the groundwork to start an Angels chapter in Edmonton and get Angels patrolling the mean streets of Haverstraw, New York. Meanwhile, as the local media quickly lost interest, the Boston Angels settled in for what they insisted was the long haul. They got off to a rocky start. In mid-April, Erich “Pitbull” Kennedy, senior Angel and part-time magician, was outed as a sex offender and given the boot. The Herald hit the Angels hard for the scandal, prompting one member to post a note on the blog the paper had provided, contending that the group was as strong as ever. The tabloid, the Angel implied, was being unfair.

Near the end of April, the police made huge news by announcing two arrests in connection with the Chiara Levin murder. With a clearance rate last year of 38 percent—two dozen points below the national average—any homicide arrest would be cause for celebration, but this one, coming in the most high-profile case of the year, was an especially big deal. And the Angels—struggling for publicity and, really, relevance—wanted a piece of the action: Boston’s senior Angel, Joshua Grant, fired up the blog again and posted an item arguing the Angels were entitled to some of the credit. “The news of arrests made in the Levin case has certainly helped bring things into perspective once more,” he wrote. “The short press release from the BPD mirrors exactly the information we passed along to them after receiving a tip from someone in the community.” Annoyed, the police department said Grant’s claim was completely baseless.

Bruce Wall, who had, in the end, gotten his state of emergency declared, though not in so many words, was also coping with his waning media coverage. He said he wanted to focus on getting his local radio show into syndication; advertisers were already lining up to get on board. He also decided to abandon a city council run—his advisers had counseled him against it. He said he might run for mayor instead.

A crisis is a peculiar thing, often less about raw numbers than it is about narrative. It wasn’t the steady drumbeat of young-black-man-on-young-black-man crime that did it. It was when murder got out of its box and spread to women, children, and a tourist—and a career blowhard from New York arrived to clean up our own house for us—that we felt it was necessary to really band together.

For now, old alliances have been renewed. The mayor and governor, the cops and the ministers, and the police commissioner and the U.S. Attorney, all marching arm in arm, amid a ticker-tape parade of antiviolence proposals coming from City Hall and the State House. Broad-based cooperation is once again the theme of the day. As Jeffrey Brown pointed out, “Part of the wonderful characteristic of what happened 15 years ago is that we dealt with the issue from many different angles—though the real miracle was that adults decided to do business differently from the way they did it before.”

The question now is whether adults will continue to do business differently, and if so, whether it will even work. Circumstances have certainly changed, and the old blueprint is far from a sure bet. The bushels of federal aid Boston got in the ’90s for violence prevention are gone, and Governor Patrick’s emergency allotment still comes up short. The city’s community-based organizations, which provided the bulk of youth development services during the Boston Miracle, are being starved near to death by funding cuts. And the city spends more money on police overtime alone than it does on all its community centers and its B-smart program, which promotes dialogue among city officials, cops, and neighborhood leaders.

But at least we’re all rowing in the same direction again, no small feat for a place famous for its long-standing commitment to being maddeningly uncooperative. The Guardian Angels may stick around, or they may not. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the service they unwittingly provided us just by showing up. Curtis Sliwa couldn’t have imagined it would unfold in such a convoluted way, but when he came to town to help us, we were so offended by his presence that we ended up helping ourselves just to spite him. And what’s more Boston than that?